What to learn from Senator Harry Reid’s fight with pancreatic cancer

Jan 13, 2022
Devin Golden

Harry Reid, a former United States senator, passed away at the end of December. His four-year battle with pancreatic cancer was courageous and a testament to the advancements of science and medicine.

He’s also an example of how the future of cancer treatment should look.

Senator Reid was at death’s doorstep in 2018 –when rounds of chemotherapy and radiation therapy did little to slow his tumor’s growth. He told the Washington Post he was, at that time, close to dying. Two years later, he was in complete remission thanks to enrolling in a clinical trial for an experimental treatment regimen using three different therapies, including cancer cell and gene therapy.

Unfortunately, the standard of care (chemotherapy and radiation) did little to help the late U.S. Senator in his fight against pancreatic cancer. This story is sadly a familiar one for many of the roughly 60,000 Americans diagnosed each year with the disease.

What did help was a combination therapy, including cell therapy, using all facets of the body’s immune system to kill cancer cells.

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid

Senator Reid’s remission thanks to novel therapy.

In an interview with the Washington Post in 2020, the former senator from Nevada said he was cancer-free. While the cancer did eventually return, Senator Reid lived for more than three years after being diagnosed – a significantly longer survival time compared to most cases of pancreatic cancer.

The usual survival for this cancer is a few months to a couple of years. A small percentage of patients reach the three- and five-year survival feats.

Senator Reid’s outlook in 2018 and 2019 was not optimistic. After surgery and while receiving chemotherapy and radiation, he needed a wheelchair to get around in public, according to the Washington Post article.

“Many Democrats privately viewed the weeks leading up to his state’s critical Feb. 22 (2020) presidential caucus as a farewell tour of sorts,” the article reads, noting Senator Reid, who served on the U.S. Senate from 1987-2017, was already doing better by then.

His improved health was thanks to a clinical trial run by the biotech company ImmunityBio. The former Senate Majority Leader received a combination of  three therapies using the immune system to seek out and kill cancer without the toxic impact of chemotherapy on healthy cells. This combination therapy included:

  • PD-L1 t-haNK therapy – natural killer cells engineered to target the cells expressing the cancerous PD-L1 protein 
  • N-803 – a superagonist protein binding to the IL-15 receptor to enhance immune response 
  • Aldoxorubicin – a tumor-targeted variation of the chemotherapy drug doxorubicin 

Lesson learned from Senator Harry Reid’s story.

Pancreatic cancer is diagnosed in around 60,000 people in the United States each year. Nearly 50,000 deaths annually are attributed to this cancer. A small percentage of patients survive – or even reach multiple years of survival.

One of the prime reasons for this is the lack of access for the general public to new treatment options. Chemotherapy and radiation are toxic to the body, lower quality of life, and often don’t help life expectancy significantly.

If surgery isn’t possible, then there’s a need for other approaches. This is the lesson from Senator Reid’s story. Cell and gene therapy – similar to what Senator Reid received – offers new hope to patients with pancreatic cancer. One type of cell and gene therapy – CAR T-cell therapy – is proven to work for blood cancers leading to inspiring patient survivor stories.

Cell and gene therapies for pancreatic cancer and other solid tumors is in early testing and research. Through clinical trials, they may lead to breakthroughs ultimately curing cancer.

Alliance for Cancer Gene Therapy believes a breakthrough is coming. The question is “when” a cure comes, not “if” one emerges. The sooner the better, though, because sooner means more people gaining access to life-changing therapies.

Funding is a significant roadblock delaying these therapies advancing into testing and to patients. Funding this critical research is a problem that ACGT and you – our readers and donors – can help solve.

Please consider donating to Alliance for Cancer Gene Therapy. Cell and gene therapy added precious years to Senator Reid’s life – years to spend with his family and friends. Most people with pancreatic cancer don’t get this extra time, but we can team up to change that going forward.

Page sources

  1. ‘I feel good. I’m alive’: Two years after diagnosis, Harry Reid says he’s cancer free. Washington Post. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/powerpost/i-feel-good-im-alive-two-years-after-diagnosis-harry-reid-says-hes-cancer-free/2020/06/11/8b0b501c-ac0a-11ea-94d2-d7bc43b26bf9_story.html. Accessed: 01/04/2021.